Armed Sprawl

Clear away, for the moment, the repression, the bombings, the rocket attacks, the fence, the religions, the national aspirations and resentments — and just take a closer look at Israel and the West Bank. It’s not hard to do. Open Google Earth and cruise over this conflicted piece of territory, concentrating your attention on signs of human habitation.

You’ll see, radiating out from Tel Aviv, untamed and unstoppable growth. If you like or have a stake in the growth, you call it development. Otherwise you call it sprawl. But whatever you call it, Israel’s megalopolis is growing. And that growth includes the settlements in the West Bank. Ignore, for the moment, the human story of the settlements. What you see from the air is scattered suburban development. The so-called outposts are cheaper buildings and mobile homes.

This sprawl is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we start thinking of the conflict as a problem of urban development, perhaps we can find a different set of solutions to the longstanding impasse.

The California Connection

While you’re still on Google maps, zoom out until you see the whole of Israel from the Mediterranean to Jordan. If you’ve flown into Southern California, you’ll recognize the picture: dense urban development in the coastal strip, a few communities in the San Bernardino range, and then a network of satellite cities and communities in the desert. Today, the development and density in the Mojave is far greater than in the Jordan Valley and West Bank. But 40 years ago, the aerial view of California would have resembled Israel/Palestine. The same process took place in northern California around San Francisco.

California’s development in the 20th century was unimpeded by an indigenous population — thanks to disease and displacement. But the economic growth pressures were similar. There’s a reason why Tel Aviv is compared to Los Angeles, and it’s not just a visual resemblance. In both cases, Western settlers grabbed a coastal scrubland and built planned communities, industry, and infrastructure. The cities expanded both horizontally and vertically until they reached the mountains.

All of Israel is driven by the economic engine of Tel Aviv. While the city proper has fewer people than Jerusalem, the metro area has a population of around three million, with all the wealth and amenities that burgeoning developed-world cities have. In fact, Tel Aviv is one of the wealthiest cities in the Middle East. With a GDP of over $120 billion, Tel Aviv rivals Tehran, a city with many times the population. Both residents and businesses are always on the lookout for expansion: cheaper land for business and more space for residents. The destination is almost certainly the suburbs.

Jerusalem is a smaller metro area than Tel Aviv, and like many capital cities is more highly dependent on public funding than the coast, which is largely privatized. But Jerusalem is only an hour’s drive through the mountains from Tel Aviv, and in 2011 a high-speed rail line will join the two. In truth, Jerusalem is a satellite city, a metro area of 1 million which is going through a period of population change and increased development on the periphery.


With their military escorts and government financing, Israeli settlements don’t seem at first blush to follow a normal pattern of development. But the U.S. military was essential in protecting settlements, particularly in the West, just as Chinese development of its West today is a semi-military operation. As for government financing, increased government contracts from the Federal Housing Authority and a huge investment in infrastructure all subsidized the wave of suburban expansion in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

The settlements may be awash in ideological and cultural fervor, but a sizable number of residents came mainly for increased space and lower costs. As of 2009, the West Bank had about 300,000 settlers, plus nearly 200,000 Israelis in disputed East Jerusalem, scattered among 2.3 million Palestinians. Israel has a population of 7.5 million, so West Bank settlers represent about 4 percent of Israelis. If Jerusalem is factored in, it’s 6.6 percent. Interestingly, the Jewish population of Jerusalem — a majority since the 19th century — is declining, but wealth and flight to the suburbs is increasing.

And West Bank Israelis face the same drawback that other residents in the exurbs face – longer commute times. To be sure, there are other problems, but if Californians routinely face mudslides, earthquakes and fires just to enjoy a little more suburban splendor, then Israeli exurbanites are certainly willing to risk a few flying bullets.

Both Israel and Southern California also face an influx of darker and poorer people with an apparently higher birthrate. So frightening to many Californians is the growing Latino presence that some flee as far as Wyoming and Alaska. Those who don’t often resort to another device, gated communities — which is, of course, the U.S. version of Israeli settlements.


Outward growth always displaces the indigenous, the poorer people, and those with more traditional lifestyles. The settlements may seem to be particularly blatant examples of displacement, but try telling that to the millions of Shanghainese chased from their homes with little, if any, compensation. Or the poor swept out of their neighborhoods in Harare by the military. In China, India, and elsewhere, governments ignore or brush aside deeds, treaties, and longtime holdings as quickly as possible.

Certainly citizen power can stop or scale down specific development, but it has little or no effect on overall growth. Development isn’t dependent on a single developer. Another will come along and the result is what you see across the United States and the world: continued growth. Despite the global recession, it’s continuing everywhere. Housing starts may have fallen in the United States by 20 or 30 percent. But 700,000 new houses still went up in 2010. Why should it be different elsewhere, including the West Bank?

The point is not to exonerate Israelis, who, after all, have the money, the guns, and the upper hand. Nor is it a recommendation that the Palestinians just gracefully give way and find cheaper property. It’s that beneath the raging religious and ethnic conflict is a force stronger than either: unchecked economic development.

With the signing of a peace treaty, the West Bank could enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with Israel. But in time, development will tear up olive groves, shoo the poor off their land, and build gated communities. These developers might not be based in Tel Aviv, but then again, they may be. Development doesn’t respect national borders any more than it respects individual property lines. Witness the growth of Mexican border cities, based to a large degree on the wealth of the U.S. cities across the line.

We can characterize the conflict in the West Bank as a product of militarism and terrorism, oppression and resistance. But whatever you call it, the conflict has resisted resolution for at least 70 years. In many ways, it’s the same struggle that’s going on worldwide. So it’s unrealistic to expect Israel and the West Bank to come to a solution to a global problem, one that’s defied every attempt to contain it. A rising urban population and desire for wealth means that cities expand. So far, they can’t be stopped, only managed to a degree. This is not to claim that one of the world’s most-publicized and longest-running clashes could be best addressed simply by better zoning laws. But we have nothing to lose by examining the material facet of the conflict. There may yet be some creative solutions to be found.

Alec Dubro, creator of The Washington Pox, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.